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Baroness Anelay's statement to the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council

The UN Human Rights Council opened its 33rd session today, with key upcoming resolutions on modern slavery, Syria, Yemen and the role of civil society.

The Human Rights Council takes place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva
The Human Rights Council takes place at the Palais des Nations in Geneva

Mr President, High Commissioner, Excellencies.

This Council session will address many issues which have a direct impact on the day to day lives of our citizens.

Modern Slavery

At the March 2015 session, I urged you to join the UK in taking a stand on modern slavery. The renewal of the mandate on contemporary forms of slavery is vital.

Our Prime Minister Theresa May recently described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. There are an estimated 45 million victims across the world. The UK Government is committed to action at home and abroad to stop it. At home, we are setting up a new taskforce to improve the response by our criminal justice system and to strengthen support for victims.

Abroad, we are investing £33 million in high risk countries from where victims are regularly trafficked to the UK and supporting innovative projects to address the issue. Modern slavery does not respect national borders and it requires an international response. We must work together urgently to stop slavery.

Syria

The international community’s focus is also desperately required on Syria. We welcome the US-Russia deal announced on 9 September to restore the Cessation of Hostilities and call on all parties to support it. The UK Government remains committed to improving the dire human rights situation in Syria. We are supporting the UN Commission of Inquiry, including its work documenting war crimes, as well as supporting the UN’s efforts to facilitate political negotiations. The Foreign Secretary recently announced that the UK will lead a global campaign to hold Daesh to account for its crimes. We will focus on justice for survivors and uniting the world against Daesh and its ideology. The appalling actions of the regime and terrorist groups such as Daesh are counter to all our values. There are harrowing reports of murder, torture and ill treatment in Syria’s detention system. Attacks on civilians and violations of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law are commonplace.

The humanitarian situation is desperate. Almost five and half million people live in besieged and hard-to-reach areas. Some are at risk of starvation. Despite the best efforts of the UN, humanitarian access has stalled in recent months. The UK has pledged £2.3 billion in aid for Syrian refugees.

I call on members of the Council to support the resolution on Syria at this session. The Syria people urgently need peace, justice and stability.

Yemen

In Yemen too, the humanitarian and economic situation is dire. The UK continues to strongly support the UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, and his tireless efforts to bring about peace. I deeply regret the failure to reach an agreement at the Kuwait talks. It is vital that the talks resume. I urge all parties to renew their commitment to the Cessation of Hostilities and to make the necessary compromises to find a path towards peace. The UK will remain fully engaged and supportive of international efforts to find a solution to the crisis.

The role of civil society

This Council session will address these and many other challenging issues. Given that we will mark International Day of Democracy this week, I also want to celebrate the role of civil society. The Secretary General put it well last year: “Civil society is the oxygen of democracy.” I believe strongly that our understanding of problems and our ability to find solutions are enhanced by civil society’s engagement. That is why on 15 September, British Embassies and High Commissions around the world will be holding events to celebrate civil society.

It is counter-intuitive for any government to be labelling as “foreign agents” the very groups that we need to develop our societies. I am very concerned when some governments use legislation to restrict what civil society can do. This not only violates human rights; it also leads to poorer policy making and can hamper development. Our societies thrive and our economies prosper when we harness the talents of all our citizens. Countries are more stable when no one feels excluded.

Governments may not agree with everything their citizens say, but it is vital that they allow their voices to be heard. It is particularly important that women and girls are heard. A country cannot fulfil its potential if half its population is excluded.

I have seen for myself the important, courageous and inspiring contributions made by female campaigners in many countries. In Nigeria earlier this year, I met representatives of the Bring Back Our Girls group. They told me how they have been holding their government to account; maintaining the spotlight on the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in 2014 by Boko Haram. In Colombia I met women helping other women affected by sexual violence in conflict, as part of a project funded by the UK Government.

We are funding projects like this, implemented by civil society, as part of our commitment to strengthening democracy and human rights. We are supporting hundreds of initiatives across the world, including through our £10.6 million Magna Carta Fund for Human Rights and Democracy. This global effort is driven by our belief that human rights should be a reality for everyone, everywhere.

UK’s re-election to the Human Rights Council

I would like to end with a few words about one of my personal priorities: achieving the UK’s re-election to the Human Rights Council.

The UK has always played a key role in UN human rights fora. We have been a strong advocate of the Human Rights Council, pushing to ensure it has the tools and mechanisms at its disposal to strengthen human rights protection across the world.

We are engaged across the full spectrum of UN activity, supporting peace and security, human rights and development. As a member of the Human Rights Council, we promote universal human rights as a foundation for development and an antidote to conflict.

The UK is and will remain an outward-looking, globally-minded, inclusive country. We would be honoured to serve a further term on this Council.

Published 13 September 2016